CSF-1 is a growth factor that selectively promotes the proliferation, survival, and differentiation of cells of the mononuclear phagocyte series. As part of a study on the role of cytokine and hematopoietic growth factors in central nervous system (CNS) development and inflammation, we examined the expression of CSF-1 in dissociated glial cells cultured from human fetal CNS tissue. CSF-1 mRNA and protein were constitutively expressed by astrocytes. The steady state level of CSF-1 mRNA was markedly up-regulated by both IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha in a time- and dose-dependent manner, whereas only a minimal increase was detected after stimulation with LPS. In unstimulated astrocyte cultures, CSF-1 protein levels gradually increased to 3.5-fold base-line values by 96 h and were significantly increased by all three stimulants in the order of IL-1 > or = TNF > LPS. Low levels of CSF-1 mRNA and protein were also detected in unstimulated microglia cultures. In contrast to astrocyte cultures, CSF-1 mRNA and protein increased significantly after stimulation with LPS, but changed only minimally after exposure to TNF-alpha or IL-1 beta. The effect of CSF-1 on cell proliferation, morphology, and class II MHC Ag expression was determined in highly enriched cultures of microglia and astrocytes. Microglia treated with CSF-1 showed a modest level of proliferation and differentiation into rod-shaped cells, whereas neither cell number nor shape was changed in astrocyte cultures. Interestingly, marked inhibition of both basal and IFN gamma-induced class II MHC Ag expression was observed in microglial cells cultured in the presence of CSF-1, whereas no effect was detected in astrocytes. These results suggest the possibility that in situ production of CSF-1 in the CNS may regulate normal glial cell development and contribute to the immunologic status of the CNS through the down-regulation of class II MHC expression.